A few years ago, after having read Flann O’ Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds for the third time and dug my way to somewhere near the bottom of it, I decided to try and out-Swim him. That is, use some of his ideas, update them and make them more accessible to the plain people of the world. My novel would be in the form of a hommage to the Irish genius but would also be a piece of daylight robbery. After all, I thought, O’Brien said himself that most of the characters in his book were stolen from pre-existing works – so why shouldn’t I steal from him? There ain’t nothin’ new under the sun, as King Solomon said (I think).
Right. What’s At Swim-Two-Birds about then? It’s a comic, metafictional novel in which the characters try to get rid of the author by drugging him. It’s very complicated of course (everything O’Brien does is complicated) but my plan was to make it simple by having just one character – Myles Corrigan by name – rebel when he discovers that the author (i.e. me) is planning to kill him off. This would mean that the plain people of the world would be able to follow the story without having to read the book three times.
My plan didn’t work. Halfway through I began to lose the plot because two of the other characters had become unbearably smug. They were Conn Doherty – Myles’ so-called friend – and his girlfriend Melanie Muldoon. Melanie, you see, had been Myles’ squeeze until I decided to turn Melanie off him as a prelude to his suicide. This guy had been a pain in the ass for me with his demands for more prominence but now these other two were a pain in just about every place you could imagine. Added to this was the fact that my attempt to produce superior literature was inexplicably morphing into a Mills and Boon romance. As I recorded at the time in my literary diary (every great writer should keep one): This bastard of a book looks like it’s turning into a glittery little music box tied up with pretty pink ribbons.
Something had to give. The novel that I’d had such hopes for might sell well but I’d never be able to show my face again in The Rocking Chair, a pub coming down with budding and blossoming (but mainly withering if you want to know what I really think) writing talents.
So I gave it up. That’s right. I abandoned Myles and Melanie and Conn and ALL writing and said aloud to myself in the mirror “Good fecking riddance”, or words to that effect. I was free. Free from dreaming up plots and dealing with the obnoxious characters that plagued my books. I walked in the park, I went back to The Rocking Chair, I got drunk, I got taxis home, I recovered, and then I did it all again.
But as time went on something awful happened. I began to miss good literature. There had been this gnawing in the pit of my belly and that’s what it was. The need for a decent book. So I ferreted out Ulysses and found the place I’d left off at. The scene on Sandymount Strand where Gerty MacDowell tempts Leopold Bloom by lifting her skirt to above the knee. And the shock! I could hardly believe it. For what I was reading was a mawkish, hackneyed account of the silly thoughts rushing through a young girl’s head and her dreams of marrying a strong silent man.
But that’s when I had my epiphany. I’d read one time that James Joyce had devoured all the romantic magazines he could lay his hands on so that he could get an inkling of what might go on in a teenage girl’s mind. And by God he’d done it! Not that I had a clue what went on in a teenage girl’s mind of course but the whole thing came across as really convincing.
So I threw down Ulysses and went back to my novel. I started it again, made Joyce the main character, piled on the romance and never looked back. I finished it in six fevered months and called it Further Adventures of James Joyce. And on the last day of the last month as I wrote the final words of my final draft two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of my nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. I had won the victory over myself. I loved Mills and Boon.
Colm Herron is the author of four novels and numerous essays and articles. He hails from Derry, Northern Ireland, and his newest novel The Wake was released last November.